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Archive for the month “December, 2017”

Reunion

Last night my California cousins breezed into town. Leaving the raging fires behind, their arrival heralded our first serious snowfall as they continue on their way to treacherous Jerusalem for a family celebration. We gathered at my sister’s for the visit. Good souls that they are, my cousins reconnected with relatives, the last surviving of their ( and my mother’s )family: one past 90 in a hospital, the other close to 90 as spry and interesting as she always was, barely a year ago setting off by herself to India. I always figured because she was French, she had a lot of style- and obviously longevity . And actually Berthe is family by marriage, and she has the edge. Still it is wonderful to hear that people of her generation are mentally and physically alert, vital and engaged. Gives one hope.

When we get together with the cousins who departed for warmer climes when I was 10, whether here or in California, our shared past inevitably comes up, but interestingly new stories are often added: or perhaps I’ve forgotten them- such as actually knowing that my eldest cousin accompanied my grandfather to the theatres where he designed the stencils for their walls. Maybe I knew, but forgot, that beside the swing in their house on Atlas south of Eglinton, there were troves of paint. I certainly remember Buddy the dog. And maybe even, I had heard about the pizza delivery man passing the forbidden treat to nephew and uncle through the basement window to avoid my grandmother’s detection. I guffaw to recall that my grandfather actually tasted and enjoyed shrimp, a most unkosher delight.

I recall to my other cousin the terrible purple and black check coat and beret type hat complete with hideous pompon that I loathed to wear to school, trudging resentfully in my cousin’s handmedowns to WestPrep. And perhaps that was the reason I vented my misery on my younger sister whom my mother finally agreed to allow walk herself to school so I wouldn’t use a scarf to lasso her around her head, and drag her here and there on that perilous journey. As I sit here maybe 60 some years later, I can feel the anger in my body of having to shepherd my sib in that ridiculous clown coat. I suppose even then, I was aware of the importance of pretty clothes uplifting the spirit.

We review our shared past, the stories distorted or believed true by individual members of the family. We laugh, shake our heads at the incongruity of the narratives my cousins are privy to during this brief stay. In our postmodern world we now realize that each storyteller believes his or her perspective of abuse, inequalities or slights to be the correct one, their particular bias informing their view on familial relations.We chortle at the realignments that we think bear no resemblance to the ones we have grown up and old on. Still we laugh, open- mouthed at a tall tale about an apartment building.

My sister produces some of my mother’s old photographs: first husbands and wives are recalled, and we debate who the little boy might be held by the neck by our grandmother in a shapely brocade dress and hat with a veil in a formal bar mitzvah picture, but even the names of Uncle Abe( who lost a leg when it was run over on a Brooklyn Bridge), and his second wife Ethel do not shed light. For the very first time I see Uncle Marks who came first from Europe, went to Boston and became a senator, his wide white moustache suggesting a bandito. I mention the family star, a second or maybe third cousin, definitely removed😜,Howard Shore, international musician, composer of numerous films scores, but he is discussed without surprise or envy, just another relation, son of Bernice and Mac , sister to Frances, Thelma, Irving and Sylvia. My sister contributes,” Terry just died”; who is Terry? I ponder. I recall my mother telling me Mac and Bernice started “ Gift’o’Fruit” so many, many years ago.

When the original family name is recalled, I explain that in fact, we are pronouncing it in correctly, for our explorations at Pier 21 to discover the true dates of our family’s arrival were futile. Futile until a Nova Scotian librarian activist produced a book that inventoried Jewish Polish names so that we could identify through the ship’s manifest the boat, the SS Amsterdam, our grandmother, mothers and aunt’s names and descriptions that had been tallied eloquently in fine penmanship. To this documentation, I remember my mother relating how painful the metal combs pulled through their hair were, digging deeply into scalp as the guards checked heads for lice. But as well, she would recall the red, red tulips they glimpsed at the port of Holland.

We note the number of cousins intermarrying in the shetl in Poland, responsible for the disease of “ the shakes” passed on even into this generation. We collectively shudder at what might still await us by this incestuous gene pool. Hopefully marrying beyond the village gates in Canada and the US has weakened the passage of such diseases.

But if the old or regenerated tales are the sand through we sift to find our common shells, we only begin in this way to rekindle the feeling we shared as energetic cousins thrown together because of blood, strange in a way because our mothers were not close at all. And yet the strong bonds developed as kids are real, we still wanting to be in each other’s lives. The famous stories of Sunday visits or Passover hoopla in the basement while grown ups droned on upstairs are legend, Allan the leader of the kids, commanding the battles between stuffed animals and rubber soldiers, the rest of us , rolling on the floor or jumping up on the bar. My visits to LA as a grade 10 student alone , changing trains in Chicago , with my lacquered hair and pink polyester pants newly purchased at Eatons ,still sharp in my head, and with the languid days roasting in a yellow pockadot two piece on Hermosa Beach, or riding on the backside of a motorcycle were the stuff of adolescent dreams, rescuing me from my dreary life where my existence of nose cosies, and shapeless winter wear dragged me down.

Best of all, we continue where we left off so many years ago. As we survey our wrinkles, curly hair, grasping one another close, we re view the past but also look forward to continuing our presence in one another’s lives. In an art review today a critic refers to Shari Boyle’s “ bridge art”, saying “[i]t’s work that identifies and reinforces our connections; ancestral legends, family histories, psychological landscapes, our struggles, fears and desires: The stuff of being human”( Chris Hampton, the Globe and Mail, December 14, 2017). These meetings with people we love and happen to be related to are like that, part of our personal tapestries bound by the the shared, lost and retrieved narratives- precious and binding ribbons. How lovely to be related to these treasured personalities.

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Grappling

With the advent of my birthday celebration in Palm Springs, I’m trying to compose a little speech, but all that comes to mind are the usual platitudes: I’ve lived a good life, pretty well done whatever I desired, travelled, had an excellent marriage, and am exceedingly proud of my offspring; and what matters most is my family, the love I feel for them. Although timeless and true, pretty boring stuff.!The people at my dinner, I hope, will all ready know that I express these truths in my own unique way.

When my elder daughter had her bat mitzvah, I could discourse on her talents and how like a seedling that is cared for, offered environments, opportunities, nutrients and love, she had blossomed. When my son was married, I used the metaphor of a string of pearls-that there are the momentous times that stand out like the gleaming lustrous gems that draw attention, for example, the day you fall in love or are married-but the strands that hold the necklace together, the everyday events are likewise significant, and we need both to keep the necklace together. Perhaps my best oratory was my mother’s eulogy in which I surveyed her life as an immigrant girl chased down the streets with the incantation,” green horn, tin can, five cents apiece” to her fortitude when my dad succumbed to polio along with her roasted chicken loving prepared on Friday nights. After the funeral, someone told me he had heard JFK debate, and my little speech only came second to his remembrance. Incredible praise. The attending rabbi who tried to calm me before I spoke, nonetheless at my conclusion demurred,” You’ve done this before, haven’t you?”

My work at OCT involved presentations and I worked extremely hard to craft them, some lasting two days . I drew on a variety of techniques to engage my participants: from examples of paintings to closed eye visualization and response writing to direct talk. And although I am a shy, reticent and a somewhat withdrawn personality, I could perform like an actor turning on , heightening, even dramatizing key issues, with an aim always of engaging my audiences in my presentations. I could tell by the way I held their eyes whether I had been successful or not. If I am boastful, I can attest that my work at the College, particularly in working with the faculties was well done. And I am proud of those days: prompting them to make a connection with their own experiences, encouraging their reflections and offering new information for their consideration, as well as interactive activities in which they could relate new information. It was exhausting but stimulating work. In New Brunswick once, a government official remarked how different my private and public personas were.

Hardly surprising, I recoil from attending holiday functions , for I do not know how to make cocktail chatter chatter, and should an unfortunate guest decide to converse with me, I will not move away from their side, stuck like glue, babbling away, just to avoid not having to begin the process all over again.My mind flies back to those lunchtime tea dances in junior high, a single wallflower unable to vacate my spot in the gym, totally exposed in embarrassment as a misfit.

But at my tiny birthday soirée, I will ,of course , I hope be familiar to my small guest list, delighted to be with those I cherish most on this planet so I shouldn’t worry about a speech. , to pass on wisdom?, to say something they will recall when I am gone😳.In deed as it is being held in a restaurant, it might be too noisy for a few words to be heard anyway . Yet, there is a need to express in a memorable way something of import, as words whether written or used in my professional life, speak to the essence of who I am, and who I have been. Yet, perhaps because what I feel is so deep, I am unable to dislodge the entrapping emotions and put them out into the light of day. Still I fret for providing a way of sharing in speech and elevating it to suggest my heartfelt meaning.But likely, my contribution will be limited to A nod, a hug, a glance, a smile, a way to convey what is at the core of me that frankly eludes me in my imagined speech.

I am reminded of my parents’ childhood admonishments, “You don’t have to say EVERYTHING you know, Pat,” particularly when I divulged family secrets.” Think before you speak,”I was reminded often- as if my loose lips could sink ships. Ironically my work was to commandeer words to my students, and later at OCT in the formation of policy and the development of the standards into clear, concise language with words that ultimately conveyed meaning. And now as I write my blog, I describe events that as a boomer I continue to note on an ongoing basis.

Still, I am bereft of words for my own special occasion, and maybe that is the way it should be, for I hope I am more than just words, good or bad, some thoughtless , I admit. but a being who has tried to touch the lives of those who have granted me access to their souls here and there, allowing me to share their space, their dreams, their thoughts. No words can approximate.

In the end, love takes multiple shapes.

Times- are they a- changing?

When my cousin was a young man, he came back to Toronto from California to visit his girlfriend. The family was beside themselves because he wore white pants in winter, obviously contravening the unbreachable rule that white could not be worn after labour day. It was the cause célèbre back then, all shaking their heads at that affront to civilized society. We should have know he was a trail blazer.

When I read that Prince Harry was marrying his divorced sweetheart, I thought of poor Princess Margaret, the Queen’s harassed sister prevented from marrying her heart’s delight, Peter Townsend, because he had been previously married. Later Prince Charles and Camilla both sheared of former loves were eventually allowed to marry, the first royals allowed to divorce, Henry viii and Anne of Cleves in 1540. Perhaps for to grab at a few vestiges of prior days, Meghan Markle who attended a Catholic high school will actually submit to baptism in the Church of England.

How things change over time. From clothes to technology and mores . And what of the shame and disgrace brought on to a family should a child be conceived out of wedlock. In deed women years back were not even allowed to teach school if they were in the family way. And early paintings hid the improper condition by the empire line dress that allowed for the fabric to billow over the stomach disguising the body shape.

Michael Adams the president of the Environics that surveys, researches and consults with leading thinkers on public opinion, demographics, and trends, spoke in a forum for University of Toronto’s continuing education classes, addressing how Canada has changed as well :perhaps as a response to the country’s population that is now compromised of 40 percent of first and second generation newcomers to Canada. He postulates that around 1970, with the rise of Quebec Nationalism, Canada gradually began to embrace a new ideology of integrating foreigners into our society : one that still had considered Sunday as the Lord’s Day and hence no Sunday shopping- until 1992. How well I recall my mother telling me she, a newcomer to Canada, had been chased down the street with taunts of “tin can, popcorn, five cents a piece.” From our imperial traditions of moose, Mounties and maple syrup and the tight lipped British, we too have altered our attitudes over time. Jews recall the attitude of None is Too Many, the turning back of the ship of refugees on the St. Louis , eventually contrasting it to the acceptance of 60,000 boat people from Viet Nam years later. And ironically too,we learn that most Christmas songs were penned by Jews, reinforcing idealized traditions that never were, as they fled Russia, Poland for America, that mythic land of equality.

What a difference a day, a month or a year makes…

Adams listed our Canadian values of tolerance, respect, the desire for gender equality and acceptance of paying taxes because we trust in government to better our lives. As well, our country has, two official languages.My children in the 70’s attended a duo school that taught both French and English, but many French Immersion schools sprung up over the city. Our thinking was guided by a sense of a broader world space and although Canadian children, unlike their American counterparts, tended to return home after their college educations. But with the purposely widening of a cosmopolitan outlook and view towards the world, we foresaw that our children might permanently leave the nest and locate their futures in places where French might be spoken. I’ve often told the story of our own children’s ease in Paris where they effortlessly slipped into conversations with locals, being accepted as competent speakers of French, worthy of a dialogue. And in fact, a former childhood friend of theirs eventually became a foreign correspondent in Morocco. In considering how we differ from the United States, Adams cited , as well our healthcare and an educational system pretty well equal across the country, again unlike that great gap between public schools in Massachusetts and Mississippi. Ironically to possess the American Dream, one must come to Canada, we believing government in its power to ameliorate our lives. The Americans still debating health care, demonize ours lauding theirs. Yet just last fall, we waited for almost four hours to be seen in Emergency in California.

Maybe because I am almost 70, I can take the long view, comparing life then and life now. It is a truism that people are people and for the most part, we are still built the same with skin, bones and emotions, but we are set, as our ancestors were into changing times, lingering prejudices and a requirement to adapt. Unlike our grandchildren, we did not grow up with iPhones and IPad. Years ago when we visited Disneyland’s Futureland, the question was posed : if you could augment your knowledge with a computer chip placed in your brain, would you? I imagine soon we will.

Cars that drive themselves may appear on the roadways before boomers die. We all ready have vacuums by Dyson who replace Molly Maids. Sadly, kindles replace paper books yet paper proliferates.And the internet through email speeds messaging. New developments and greater research have increased life span. Just read the obits to see how many lives have been prolonged have into the 90’s.

Exposure of male abuse of colleagues is openly condemned, the hypocrisy of it previously known but allowed to persist, an open secret. Pushed into the light of day prior assaults are now being contributed by victims. And truthfully, I believe almost every woman has experienced some form of inappropriate behaviour . I remember arguing with one of my girls about a top I felt too provocative and she asserting, even 20 years ago, she had a right to wear what she wanted. Because I anticipated the impact of said top, I countered her sense of emerging self , but as raging adolescents will do, she prevailed. Years later with more experience of the world, she understood the need to modulate her clothing to avoid those lascivious looks, calls or grabs.. .( obviously not her fault) .Ironically Trump’s own words of pussy- grabbing did not stop his election to the position wherein exemplary behaviour for the nation should be modelled.

Here also, we support the battlecry of the abused, note our radio celebrity Jian Ghomeshi, accused but released for his unwanted predator behaviour. Unlike his brothers in the US, his case could not be proven, and he has slinked away from society. And although there is the condemnation and chastisement for Lindsay Shepherd, a lecturer at Laurier University reprimanded for showing a video debate on the use of sexist pronouns by a U of T professor. As Alice might murmur, life gets stranger and stranger. We seem to push and pull away and towards, unable to find as Ralph Waldo Emerson and many others preached, “the middle road.” But even as I watch Outlanders and protagonist Claire’s return to 300 years earlier in Scotland, and her knowledge of who will succeed and who will fail, I am caught as we all by the evolution and its backward thrust of society that steadfastly maintains people in its maw, twisting and turning them as the world responds to the wisdom or folly of those making and enforcing the rules of civility.

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